Orwell prize-winning novelist Andrea Gillies drew attention to the rash of Amazon reviewers who, claiming they were “unable” to identify with the characters in books, marked them down in terms of the stars they gave. Andrea then went on to claim many classic narratives had no character one could *really* identify with, yet this did not stop them being great literature.
I have to say I agree with Andrea. Though her original point was about novels, we see this issue in scriptwriting a lot. Readers will often claim they cannot identify with characters, thus question a script’s characterisation from a negative standpoint in their coverage. “Identifying” with characters has now become a short cut to readers saying, “Well *I* wouldn’t do things the same way as this character, thus the characterisation does not stand up”.
Over the years I’ve been reading then, I’ve seen a certain homogenisation of characterisation from spec writers, seeing the same *types* of character over and over again, with very few scribes daring to “stand out” for fear of the above. I’ve seen a massive reduction in the Anti-Hero in particular, but protagonists are now often *so* good, they seem rather naive – their faith is infrequently tested and they’re seldom asked to make abhorrent decisions, ie. “sacrifice one to save more”. Similarly on television and on the silver screen, I’ve noticed characters we love seldom die anymore, even when it’s the best thing for the narrative. Worst of all, I’ve seen female characters boxed in even more than they were, existing solely as devices for the plot, rather than characters in their own right, both in specs and in produced stuff.
We should note that “identifying” with characters is about our own ego. Sure, we may PREFER a character to do something else (like NOT die), but if it fits the internal logic of the narrative and challenges how we see the world or an issue, surely that in itself is preferable to what we would *like* to see happen?
Whether novel or script, I would argue good characterisation is not about “identifying” with those characters per se, but UNDERSTANDING them: their motivations, how they see the world, what has brought them to the place where we join them in the narrative and how that plays out for them.
Re: “I’ve noticed characters we love seldom die anymore, even when it’s the best thing for the narrative.”
Just last night I was watching a relatively new series. I won’t mention the name because I hate giving and getting spoilers. A character dies in an early episode that was played by a very young, phenomenal little actor. I did not see it coming. It tore my heart out. She was SO good, especially for her age but I would put this little girl up against some of the best veteran actors in the business. She was that good. I had looked forward to seeing more of her talent, but to your point, her death in the story really underscored the struggles a single mother experienced during the era setting of this story. Great point in your article.
One question, Lucy: As aspiring spec screenwriters, we’re told to keep character descriptions very brief and dialog lines short and sweet (always on the dialog). It seems to me, a reader would have to discover what a character is like through dialog and his actions over a good part of a screenplay, especially if they don’t say much. I know I’m stating the obvious here, but is it okay in a spec screenplay to describe a protagonist or antagonist’s character with three or four sentences when he/she enters the story? If not, any tips or links to any of your articles that explain how to do this early on in the screenplay without breaking spec writing rules of the game?
Thank you, Lucy!
Hi Chris, totally – a good intro can pay dividends. This B2W article may help with more detail on this – Q: How Best To Introduce A Character?